#2 - Athens, Asylum, Amen
Every good story begins with an obstacle. Mine was a gastrointestinal bug that left me feverish and chained to the hostel toilet for three days. The quest for happiness was off to a hell of a start. Meanwhile, the great city of Athens bustled and boiled just outside the window.
Our mission was to visit a refugee camp here in Athens to deepen our understanding of how happiness evolves through the diverse experiences that stem from human displacement, as well as to speak with the locals here about how questionable politics have informed Greek culture and sentiment. Despite our rocky, pain-in-the-gut start, we found what we came for and more.
Karim received word that, by a sheer stroke of luck, his cousin, Ahmed, was coming into town accompanied by representatives from the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization and the European Institute of Peace. Ahmed is an insightful and inspiring man who has done a lot with such peace organizations.
Karim and I loaded up on children's coloring books, coloring pencils and water balloons to donate to the effort. We joined Ahmed and the peace organization representatives for the short drive to Piraeus – a tent city set up at the main boat port of Athens – and prepared ourselves mentally to experience first-hand the crisis that had drawn us to Greece.
Most asylum-seekers who come through Turkey cross the Aegean Sea to the island of Lesvos (our next stop) and then, eventually, get sent to Piraeus. It is a dangerous and grueling journey. Many end up stuck in a camp for months or years, sent back to Turkey or deported back to the conflict area that they were trying to escape. I say asylum-seekers because the term "refugee" is a specific classification that doesn't apply to most people fleeing their homeland. I'll use the terms interchangeably, but you can check out the distinction HERE.
We pulled up to Piraeus under the midday sun. The Greek government had recently pushed the asylum-seekers out of the building where they had been staying, forcing them to disperse nearby. They now stayed in tents overflowing from a warehouse into the parking lot and under the highway overpass. Karim and I looked at each other and had to admit that we were nervous. Our hearts were heavy. We took a deep breath and entered the camp.
We opened the car door to a cloud of heat that sat heavily on the expanse of concrete before us. From behind a couple of trailers, the sound of squeals filled the air. Children ran back and forth, splashing around in a set of kiddie-pools set up outside of the warehouse. Teens laughed as they took turns blasting each other with a hose for a lighthearted shower. A veiled woman strolled slowly by, beaming at us through wise eyes set deeply in her wrinkled face. Greeted by casual hellos and laughs, we were struck by the lively air of the place. These folks may be seeking asylum on an extraordinary journey, but they are also ordinary people who while away their uncertain time in ways that anybody would in the United States or Europe. Many people that I talked to reminded me of friends and family of mine. And the ones who I met were, in general, the sorts of people I'd like to spend more time with: kind, generous, fun-loving, and hopeful.
Ahmed spoke to Karim and I as we walked through the camp together, and shed his insight on the idea of hope. To him, hope is life. There is little alternative here. And so, while conflicts surface in the camp, triggered by ethnic, religious, and political differences (and lack of camp funding/resources at times), you will find an inspiring amount of hope. Regretfully, the same cannot be said of all refugee camps. Some, such as Moria on Lesvos, are more like a prison or internment camp than a temporary home.
We came to the mouth of one tent baking in the sun in the parking lot, where an Afghani boy invited us into the shade of his tent. We shared names and pleasantries. He offered us his juice-box - a camp ration. I felt a lump in my throat as we politely declined. On any day back home this would be a small gesture. But this was different. The boy had all but walked through fire for a better life, and sat before us now with next to nothing in his possession. Ahmed communicated with the boy in Arabic, offering to pray together. The four of us sat cross-legged, eyes closed, as Ahmed offered his prayer.
After we left we strolled through the parking lot to the port water, heavy and emotionally exhausted. We sat silently for a time. Then, through the muggy silence, Karim began to laugh. "What?" I asked him, trying to pry my mouth into more of a smile.